Whoever Is Not With Me Is Against Me

Author: Archbishop Levada


Archbishop William J. Levada

This has not been an easy month for several of Oregon's Democratic and Catholic legislators. It started out with a front-page piece in <The Oregonian> on fellow parishioners at St. Joseph's parish in Salem, who do not always (or maybe even ever) see eye to eye in regard to the politics of abortion.

The case was made by the <Oregonian's> religion writer Mark O'Keefe that two St. Joseph's parishioners who are pro-choice Democratic state representatives were on a collision course with Pope John Paul II, whose recent encyclical <The Gospel of Life> (<Evangelium Vitae>) reiterated the traditional Catholic teaching about the immorality of abortion.

Oregon's Parental Notification Bill

Again this past week, in reporting the House of Representatives' vote on the parental notification bill (passed by the state Senate earlier), <The Oregonian> gave front-page coverage to the vote of these same two Catholic legislators, joined now by another from St. Helen's, suggesting that these three Catholics defied their Pope and their Church by joining together to provide the margin of defeat for the bill.

The reaction apparently made even Oregon's highest-circulation newspaper take notice. Last Sunday, the "public editor" or ombudsman of the paper took the Oregonian's editors to task for their "single-issue" focus on the news in reporting the vote on the parental notification bill as primarily a "Catholic" religious issue. I'm sure Bob Caldwell's column was welcome to many in Salem, as it was to many of us in the Catholic Church community.

And May 30th, Rep. Bryan Johnston outlined his position in an op-ed piece. He looks at his vote as a conscientious decision about the merits of the legislation, suggesting that "each representative wrestled with his own God, his own religious, spiritual, and cultural background, his own set of personal values before casting his vote."

St. Thomas More

Everyone likes to take the high ground in justifying their practice of the art of politics as conscientious. It would be hard to argue with the intention. But the question is more complex. For example, O'Keefe's first article painted Johnston as a latter-day St. Thomas More, who refused as a matter of conscience to approve his king's divorce against the decision of his Pope.

Unlike Thomas More, it is his Pope whom Johnston refuses to heed, the Pope who insists upon recognizing (like Thomas More) that God's law still comes first, that "Thou shalt not kill" includes abortion, and that informed, conscientious judgment by practitioners and politicians alike ought to be based on the moral principles which require us to do good and avoid evil.

Thank God for Becky Gibson of Hillsboro, whose subsequent letter to the editor of The Oregonian surely spoke the important corrective many of us were waiting to see. As she put it, "What a stretch for Rep. Bryan Johnston to compare himself to St. Thomas More.... Unlike Johnston ... St. Thomas did not succumb to political pressures. Rather, he resigned from his position at the height of his career and esteem, was reduced to a life of poverty, imprisoned, tortured, and beheaded. He sacrificed all rather than endorse a man-made law over God's law. Just before his death he told the crowd that he was dying as 'the king's good servant—but God's first'."

The complex issues involved in a discussion like this are classic ones, as the references to Thomas More show. Politics is often defined as the "art of the possible," or the "art of compromise." Political decisions often require balancing several competing demands— loyalty to party, the interests of (at least some) constituents, the public relations effect, accommodating colleagues on one issue to gain their support on another, and so on. When "morality" becomes a part of this mix, as it often will, morality will be defined more or less broadly according to the politicians' frame of reference, including both their general education and their knowledge of and commitment to "moral" values.

When these moral values are bound up with "religious" values as well, as they are in the great religious traditions of Western civilization, the pitfalls on the way to political "compromise" can be serious—for the individual politician, for the religious tradition, and for society as a whole.

Separation Of Church And State?

The example used in O'Keefe's original article can serve as a case in point. From the perspective of society, the tendency to "privatize" the moral dimension, so common to America with its slogan "separation of church and state," can potentially have disastrous consequences. While not every law equally engages a moral dimension, many do so, and in different ways, from abortion to pornography, from welfare to the environment, from health care to international development, from war to criminal justice.

Since economic self-interest is a primary engine of society and of the political system, the potential for moral compromise is an ever present dimension of the political system. In a society like ours, when the moral needle so often registers "amnesia" or "bankruptcy," it is no easy matter for conscientious politicians to achieve a consistent course, especially if their moral vision and principles are not well-grounded and worked out in advance.

From the perspective of the religious tradition, the potential for conflict is necessarily present—both in regard to the body politic, in the compromises its policies sometimes make with the deeply held religious/moral principles of many of its citizens, and in regard to the individual politician, for whom the temptation to compromise principle is buttressed by at least two considerations.

The individual politician or legislator may reason that since he serves by a mandate of the voters in a representative democracy, who may not hold to a particular moral principle (or to any), he would not "represent" them well if he were to follow principled moral convictions without regard to a poll to ascertain their views. Or he may reason that compromise is required for him to avoid alienating the voters who will keep him in office, an office which at least allows him to do some good and useful things for society even if he does have to compromise on principles.

Private Morality In Public

One of the ways our society often treats the series of dilemmas involved in judgments based on moral principles is to privatize the area of morality, suggesting that it is a matter of personal conviction and opinion. A corollary of this would segregate religion from the public and political sphere, as in the slogan "Keep religion out of politics," or last fall's "Don't let one church tell Oregonians how to die" slogan raised against Catholic participation in the campaign against Measure 16's physician-assisted suicide bill.

Ultimately, such an artificial separation of morality, religious-based or not, from public life and political discussion is self-defeating, and can be the platform for decisions with enormously devastating social consequences—one thinks of the genocide campaigns of this century, for example; or of wars waged under the banner of false patriotism; or of the slaughter of abortion, as in our case.

Nor should it be thought that a religious tradition such as the Catholic Church's is being "unbending" or rigid in its failure to compromise for the sake of political accommodation. Ultimately, it is the purpose of the religious tradition not to accommodate the changing political fashions, but to be the bearer of moral principle which can allow the individual conscience to discern between what is truly good and what is merely expedient. Without such criteria and principles, no truly just society would be possible.

Pro-Abortion Democratic Party Politics

Thus, for the individual citizen and politician, the question of conscientious judgment about the ways moral principles should be applied in practice takes on a new dimension when it comes to the public weal. Many Catholic Democrats are heard to say about abortion, "I am personally opposed to it, but I think women should be given a choice." This allows, it would seem, a compromise between the clearest sort of moral principle enshrined in the centuries-long teaching of the Catholic Church about abortion and the fashion of contemporary Democratic political "philosophy," which enshrines the "pro-abortion/pro-choice" position in the party platform.

But millions of Catholics—many with long-standing family traditions of voting Democratic—have abandoned their historic connection with the party over just this issue. They recognize that certain principles do not allow of such easy compromise, and that the teaching of their Church about the evil of abortion requires not only their social action to provide women with alternatives to abortion, but also their political action in favor of the dignity and sanctity of life.

In my own personal judgment, the media analysis of the current major shift in American politics is focused too much on the "Christian right" (which of course is organizationally identifiable). On the other hand, little attention is paid to the quiet, even reluctant, phenomenon of the shift of convinced Catholic voters away from the Democratic Party, which had been home to so many of them, over its pro-abortion policies.

The Gospel Of Life

The individual politician, like any Catholic, who is at odds with the teaching of the Church about the principle involved, i.e., that abortion constitutes the killing of innocent human life and is always gravely immoral (cf. <Evangelium Vitae>, nn. 57-62), has an obligation to reflect more deeply on the issue, in the hope of allowing the persuasive character of this infallibly taught teaching to become part of his belief and value system. I say infallibly taught not because Pope John Paul II has assumed in <Evangelium Vitae> the special prerogative recognized for individual papal teachings in the First Vatican Council, but rather because he has called attention explicitly to the fact that Catholic teaching on abortion has been an infallible doctrine of the Church by virtue of the universal ordinary Magisterium, recognized for the teachings of the Pope and worldwide college of bishops together by the Second Vatican Council.

It should be clear, then, that every Catholic is required to accept this teaching as a matter of faith, and that any Catholic who would deny it would separate himself from the unity of Catholic faith and practice which is the fundamental condition for Church membership. Here I note by way of aside that Catholic "membership," unlike that of some other religious bodies, is not a matter of "enrollment" but rather of "belonging" to the Body of Christ, whose condition is the full profession of Catholic faith and the reception of Baptism as the beginning of a life of sacramental worship and moral living in accord with the teachings of Christ.

Moral Principles Applied

The application of such moral principles always involves personal judgment. At times, the Church pronounces convincingly about a particular course of action which enshrines the principle and precludes personal compromise. In applying the principle in the context of the public order, however, the considerations alluded to above cannot be absent, and will sometimes find those who hold to the same Catholic principle of morality with different conclusions about how it should be applied in the concrete circumstances.

It is with just such a delicate and complex task in view that Pope John Paul seeks to offer guidance to Catholic medical practitioners as well as politicians and legislators. His remarks, too detailed to review here, are compassionate, sophisticated, and outspoken. He remarks, for example, that "the acceptance of abortion in the popular mind, in behavior, and even in law itself, is a telling sign of an extremely dangerous crisis of the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, even when the fundamental right to life is at stake. Given such a grave situation, we need now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception" (<Evangelium Vitae>, n. 58).

The Pope discusses at some length questions of the relationship between civil law and moral law, the role of conscientious objection and of compromise in achieving a partial good, limiting the harm of a more excessive law. He further analyzes the possibilities of cooperation with evil and with unjust or immoral legislation. He has made a personal and persuasive argument to all of us, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, to look at the underlying moral principles which derive from the dignity of human life itself as the framework for political discourse and action.

The impact of <Evangelium Vitae> deserves to be enormous; it offers the reflections which can provide a common language for addressing the divisive issue of abortion politics in America today. It will also, as O'Keefe's original <Oregonian> article indicated, highlight "the tension . . . in statehouses and courthouses across the country as people of faith—whatever their religion—struggle to integrate their spirituality with their public life." Tensions and political differences can be creative, but they are not an end in themselves. If the Pope is right, the failure to base the rule of law in society on a true vision of moral good will result in a "culture of death." American society could not survive in such a culture of death, nor should it.

This article appeared in "The Catholic Sentinel" on June 2nd, 1995.